Missourians Take Classes on Spotting Tornadoes It is tornado season in the Midwest, where the National Weather Service is training the public to act as tornado spotters. When meteorologists see storm patterns on radar that suggest a tornado is forming, they rely on the spotters to report what's happening in the skies.
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Missourians Take Classes on Spotting Tornadoes

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Missourians Take Classes on Spotting Tornadoes

Missourians Take Classes on Spotting Tornadoes

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Storm-chaser wannabes, Weather Channel junkies, here's one way to get your fix. Across the country, the National Weather Service offers training for storm spotters, volunteers trained to report on severe weather as it moves through their communities. Missy Shelton of member station KSMU in Springfield, Missouri, reports.

MISSY SHELTON: Here at the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Springfield there's no shortage of high-tech devices to help meteorologists like Megan Terry monitor and predict the weather.

Ms. MEGAN TERRY (National Weather Service): Right now, we're looking at a radar image across the Ozarks in eastern Kansas. So we can pull in our radar data. We can overlay it if we want with satellite data. We have numerical model data, graphics data. You know, it's almost overload the amount of data that we can look at.

SHELTON: But in some cases that computer data is no substitute for doing it the old-fashioned way: going outside and looking up at the sky. That's essentially what storm spotters do, observe cloud formations and report them to emergency management officials or the local Weather Service office. They use the spotters' information to help decide when to activate warnings.

Chris Mayer(ph) is a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Mr. CHRIS MAYER (Meteorologist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): You can have the best Doppler radar network in the world and satellites and all the best technology out there, but it's still not going to tell you what's happening on the ground beneath a severe thunderstorm, and that's the void that the weather-spotters fill.

SHELTON: Since the early 1970s, the National Weather Service has used spotters as its eyes and ears on the ground. There are spotters in every state, nearly 280,000 of them nationwide. Many attend training sessions like this one in central Missouri. About 50 people gathering at Osage Beach City Hall on a rainy night to listen to National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Runnels.

There were several EMT personnel in the crowd, but most of the people here aren't wearing any kind of uniform. They're amateur radio operators, retirees, and even a couple of high school students.

Ms. REBECCA MILKA(ph): My name is Rebecca Milka. I'm 16. When I'm at school and between classes, if the weather's really bad and I see something and I know what it is, I know to be a little bit more careful and to make sure I'm inside.

During the training session, Steve Runnels plays storm video meant to teach the group how to identify dangerous situations that may not at first be obvious.

Mr. STEVE RUNNELS (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): You do not have to attend this class to spot a mile-wide tornado producing 250-mph winds bearing down on Osage Beach. If I can put you in a position to identify the type of thunderstorm that you're dealing with before the storm produces its weather, in particular tornadoes, then we can save lives together.

SHELTON: Harold Ward is glad to see so many people at this storm-spotter training class. He's the county coordinator of emergency management, and he's convinced that storm spotters helped save lives during a tornado outbreak four years ago.

Mr. HAROLD WARD (County Coordinator of Emergency Management, Camden County, Missouri): We had a sheriff's deputy report debris falling from the sky, which prompted me to activate warning signs across the county. Although very unfortunate that we had some deaths related to that storm, I feel like it was a lot better situation had we not activated the storm-warning signs when we did.

SHELTON: And some communities don't have sirens. Bill Hinkle(ph) and his wife, Alice(ph), came to the storm-spotter training for that very reason.

Mr. BILL HINKLE: We don't have anything as far as a warning system in our neighborhood.

Mrs. ALICE HINKLE: We live up on top of the hill, and most of our friends live down on the lake. We figure we can spot a tornado maybe a little quicker than they could down there.

SHELTON: After watching some of the videos, Alice Hinkle discovered that spotting a tornado isn't always easy.

Mrs. HINKLE: Looking at the clouds can be deceiving, and it's like that one that, you know, is coming down but it's not rotating. But when you first look at it you would think it would be a tornado, but it's not.

SHELTON: With tornado season upon us, it may not be long before these newly trained spotters put their skills to use.

For NPR News, I'm Missy Shelton.

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